Ice Dreams & 100 Mph Slapshots
At a worn-out rink in a small upstate New York town, where the murderous winters wreak havoc on roads and spirits alike, a father and two of his four sons huddle in the cheap seats to watch the local minor league hockey team. The sons have been there many times before, for there is not much to do in this nasty little burg when the air turns frigid.It is the day before Thanksgiving, 1975. The moment is rare. The father is not a sports fan. The intricacies of the game, any game, are lost on him, or so the youngest son thinks. Years before, they had gone to a Yankee game when The Stadium was still The Stadium and the facade stretched all away around the park. The father was more intent on showing his children, their mouths agape, the Empire State Building than getting to the game on time.He tries to be a good father, although it is sometimes hard. His hands are callused, since he lays brick and sidewalks for a living. The youngest son, 12 at the time, supposes his dad is watching the hockey game not to enjoy the contest but to simply get the kids out of the house while mom prepares turkey for the next day. Or perhaps it is the father's way of getting his children's mind off spending their first Thanksgiving without their grandmother, who died the previous summer. Two months after the hockey game, on a late Friday night, the father would also die, a massive heart attack cutting short his 48 years. For a time, the son keeps this memory of dad and the hockey game tucked neatly into a folder forgetting it ever existed. The game itself is a blur, like a 100 m.p.h. slapshot.Two decades later, as the son is watching Rob Murray, a center for the Springfield Falcons, chasing the puck into the corner at the Springfield Civic Center in Springfield, New Jersey, he is suddenly reminded of the pre-Thanksgiving Day hockey game played on a rink iced over by time. The air in the Springfield arena has the same bite and coarseness as the auditorium in the upper reaches of New York state. As the son watches Murray and his teammates play, he shivers. Not because of the ice, but because his father has reappeared in the most unlikely of places. Murray and the others welcome him at a weekday practice session. The son watches their scrimmage. The team's round-faced owner is warm, hospitable, and talks about a time in the minor leagues when they played without helmets or face guards. It is a time the son remembers well. The players speak of regrets, achievements, desires. The rollercoaster life of a minor league player is, perhaps, a metaphor for something, but perhaps it is just that hockey game 21 years ago. Different towns, countless roommates, women, barrooms. All the time in the world not to grow up. He has much in common, the son thinks, with the minor league hockey players. By hockey standards Murray is old, 29. The fire to make it into the big leagues still flickers, but dimly. A few short years ago, it burned hotly enough. Murray only has a finite number of hipchecks left, just so many slapshots. The end will come. Not this year, maybe not next or the year after. But some day. It may come as quickly as a blown-out knee, a stick in the face or as subtly as a pained back that never gets better. Murray, who is now lean and muscular, knows this. He has talked to the Falcons' owner Bruce Landon plenty of times about life after hockey. Landon assures him there is one.Murray has the scars of a hockey player. The most telling is his cracked nose. Broken numerous times, it comes almost to a right angle. His eyes roll back when the son asks how many times it has been broken. "Countless," he says. Murray talks about hard work, determination, getting the job done. Veteran talk. Sports talk. Murray learned how to play at about the same time the son was going to his last hockey game with his father. From the time he strapped on his skates and held a hockey stick, Murray, like thousands of others before and after him, dreamed of playing professionally in the National Hockey League. They are seduced by the NHL. They long to belong to it. The road, though, is long and torturous. First, for Canadians like Murray, there is Junior Hockey, prep school for the pros, where teenagers live far from their families in the homes of adopted parents. If you shine in the juniors, you are sure to be scouted by a professional team. If you are lucky enough to get a contract, they send you to the minors, where players can sharpen their skills and move on -- or languish in oblivion. When the son was a fan, many of the minor league players he used to know by name were shells of what they longed to be. They rarely trained in the off season. Many had potbellies. "After practicing for an hour and a half, we'd have a couple of beers and go home," says Falcons owner Landon, who was a minor leaguer in the 1960s and '70s and had the good fortune of making it to the NHL as a player for a new expansion team, the Hartford Whalers.Murray and his teammates are hard-driving. After practice some head to the weight room, others hit the stationary bikes. The off season is spent training. Hoping. They must keep the fires stoked because hundreds of others are working just as hard for the very few slots the NHL provides. While the players have changed, the dream is the same. "I don't want players who are content to be in Springfield," says Landon. The Falcons practice as hard as they play and get annoyed when they do not perform. "I got fucking tripped," one bemoans as he gets sideswiped by a faster player at practice. He takes a swig of water and spits it out onto the ice. "That's bullshit." Murray takes charge when he plays. The puck is dumped into the corner and he races for it, at first overskating, then backtracking, his eyes always focused on the prize -- the phone call from the Phoenix Coyotes. He's been a professional since 1987 when he played for the Fort Wayne Komets in the International Hockey League.He had a three-year contract at the time. Three years to make a mark. Three years to prove to himself that he is any good. Hopefully, your contract's option will get picked up in another three years. From time to time, the names of the teams change. Fort Wayne, Baltimore, Moncton, Springfield. The drill each year is all too similar. Pack up the Ford and head to a new town. Only sign a six-month lease and hope the landlord will renew month by month. A year is way too long... pack up the Ford, head to a new town, sign a six month lease..."I was traveling light," Murray says. "I had a Mustang with my TV in the back with my bedding and clothes. That was all you took."There was not enough time for a steady girlfriend. No reason to settle down. No need to buy a house when you could be in Medicine Hat next year. Rented apartments, rented furniture, meals on the go. After the season, you bid the town adieu and head to your parents' home for the summer. "Some people say it's a glamorous life," Murray muses. "But, you can't really set roots. You may find a city that you love, and want to stay. Or you may not."Murray learned from the older players, honing his craft and moving up each step of the way. "I just worked hard and played another good year," he says. Good years stack up like cordwood. Sometimes, you wonder why the phone hasn't rung, and question if the parent team knows you exist. "You can distract yourself because you have that attitude. It'll effect your game," he says.When the phone does ring, it turns out you're not expecting it. No one expects their dreams to come true. Murray was playing in Baltimore when the Washington Capitals decided it was time. "They said, `We want you to find a place.' That's your cue that you've made the team. This was before practice. Practice was a blur. This was my life's goal and I have achieved it. My first instinct was to phone my mom and dad. They were really excited for me. It was a great feeling."The first game was against the Philadelphia Flyers. Murray played on the fourth line, the last line, and remembers playing hard. "It was something else. We ended up winning that game. I contributed. It was definitely a great experience."It was also a fleeting one. Murray played in the NHL for a few games before being sent back down. "A lot of guys can play an extended career and never get there. At least I can say I played in the NHL. You feel pretty bad when you go down. It's kind of embarrassing. You were in the NHL, now you're back in the minors."He's put a lot more miles on his skates since then, and the embarrassment has given way to pride. His career will be something to tell his daughter about. He met his wife, Carolyn, while playing in Baltimore. They have a home, a family. He is no longer a gypsy. Since first playing for the Capitals during the 1989-90 season, Murray has played at least one game a year in the NHL. One pro game a season is all Murray wants. If the call that may never come never comes, it will not be the end of the world. Right now, he has a championship to win for the third-place Falcons. "You can't get enough ice time. You love to play the game," he says.The son shakes Murray's hand, says goodbye and walks away. The son now knows dreams don't die, only change. He also wonders what happens the dream ends. Len Thornson provides him with the answer. It came unannounced, with a stick to the eye. But in reality, Thornson knew long before that he would never make it to the pros. For a time, playing hockey was all that made this fast-skating, dead-eyed shooter happy. At 63, Thornson loves to talk about his playing days with the Fort Wayne Komets. The son wishes he can meet the grizzly-sounding veteran face to face. The telephone is a poor tool for communication. The Komets were a bruising team in a bruising league. Thornson still goes to the Komet games. Old fans will recognize him and shake his hand. He gave Fort Wayne some wonderful memories. In turn, Fort Wayne gave him a home.Thornson learned how to skate in Winnipeg on a rink across from his house. Hockey in Canada is a way of life, and getting to the Junior Hockey League is a rite of passage. Becoming a professional, in those days, was nirvana. "Back in those days we didn't have TV. You didn't know anything else existed."Thornson did what was expected and made his mark. He was inducted into the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame along side Chicago Black Hawk legend Bobby Hull. Thornson was an old-time hockey player, like the one you see in the black-and-white movies. At a time when the Montreal Canadiens where dominating the NHL, Thornson and the Fort Wayne Komets were tearing up their league. In 13 seasons, mostly with the Komets, Thornson scored 479 goals and had 898 assists. Back then, there were only six NHL teams and the open slots were few, especially in a dynasty like Montreal. Most of those playing in the minors were major league material, guys like Thornson. He played injured most of career. But it was worth it.He was a big fish in Fort Wayne. The town knew him, they loved him. When he skated out on the ice, they cheered. "We had some great guys playing for us," says Thornson. "It's hard to believe they couldn't make it. We were all playing for a spot on the fourth line."For Thornson, the flame was always burning. But gradually reality set in and his attention turned to more concrete ambitions, like a family. That was when the Montreal Canadiens asked him to attend a training camp, which might have meant a shot at the pros. Thornson thought hard about it. He decided to sit tight in Fort Wayne. "I opted, because the kids were going to start school, to stay here," he says.When he was 35 Thornson was smacked in the eye with a stick. He tried to come back, but it was impossible. It was too hard for him to see. Thornson hung up his skates. An insurance salesman, who met him three weeks before the injury, came to the hospital the day after the mishap and offered him a job. Thornson found he was just as good a businessman as he was an athlete. A window closes, a door opens and a hockey player skates through. He coached the local college team and ran hockey schools in the summer. He was giving something back. "I never really wanted to leave Fort Wayne," he says simply. "I couldn't have asked for a better life."His wife has pasted her husband's hockey memorabilia into a scrapbook. This way, he can flip through all his achievements, all his records, all his memories. Memories, it turns out, are not such a bad thing, the son has learned. Both Thornson and Murray have a lifetime of them. The son has always focused on the present and future, never on the past. He wants to remember more.Nat Domenichelli shows him the way. Domenichelli is making his own memories. The son laughs at the idea, because he knows Domenichelli is too young to realize it.At 20, Domenichelli is the firebrand rookie of the Falcons. He played his first game with the Whalers this season because some of the veterans were injured. From Junior Hockey to the NHL -- fast and furious -- just like he skates. Now he is in Springfield, wide-eyed with you-can't-stop-me-now emotion. The flame in his eye is almost blinding. We were all like Domenichelli sometime in our lives, it's just that most of us didn't realize it. Domenichelli hails from Edmonton Alberta, a continent away, and he is making the best of a new situation. He is easing into life as a minor league player. He lives with a family in Simsbury, surrogate parents who try to ease the pain of homesickness. "I pay rent, but I don't have to come home and do the laundry. It's new but I'm very focused and comfortable," he says. Although he has played a few games in the NHL, Domenichelli, like all those who have been there before, plans on making it a career. He has to make sacrifices, of course. They all do. There will be no Christmas in Edmonton, no Yuletide cheer with his family and girlfriend so very away.Memories await the dream he chases. Somewhere along the line, the dreams may become different and the memories certainly not what he would expect.For the son, that hockey game so many seasons ago has now become a bit more focused, as though it is were being replayed in slow motion. Maybe some day he'll take his son or daughter back to that arena in upstate New York where the murderous winters wreak havoc on the roads and the spirits.